Psychiatry in Chinese Medicine – A Basic Comparison of Western and Chinese Philosophies: by Dr. Damiana Corca, DOM, AP, L.Ac.

In order to grasp the idea of mental and emotional problems from the Chinese Medicine perspective we must uncover the meaning of basic terms such as spirit, mind and emotions. To understand the connotation of these words we need to explore philosophies such as Daoism and Confucianism, but also some of the Western philosophers’ views.

A recurring theme in Western philosophies is that emotions are waves clouding Reason. Furthermore, emotions are main cause of disease on many accounts, this being a common line of thought that Chinese Medicine agrees on. However, Chinese Medicine tends to consider emotions only as cause of disease, putting less emphasis on how emotions work.

In spite of this, emotions are far from being only a factor that influences Reason. In fact, they are a crucial factor in the development of Reason. Emotions underlie mental emotional development in a human being. In the first few months of life, the baby develops early emotions such as happiness and sadness, satisfaction and frustration, calmness and anger. After the second year of life a further class of emotions emerge, the self-awareness which gives rise to emotions such as empathy and envy. These first years’ developments are consistent with the Chinese Medicine, according to which the Shen (Mind) progressively reaches maturity around the age of 7.


Similarities between Western philosophies and Chinese Medicine

Heraclitus, the first Greek philosopher considered to have first discussed the presence of the soul, thought that soul and body were not very different, but rather had a difference in the degree of fineness and mobility. These thoughts resemble the Chinese standpoint that the spirit and body are just different manifestation of Qi.

Chinese Medicine views of the Ethereal Soul are similar to Aristotle’s idea of three souls: vegetative, which animated the vegetable world, sensitive, which animated the animal world, and intellectual, which animated the humans. The same belief is shared by Thomas Willis, who believed in the idea of two souls: sensitive and rational.

Thomas Aquinas called the heart the house of emotions and consciousness. On a very similar line, the Chinese regard the heart as the lodging of consciousness, memory, wisdom and intelligence.

The Canon-Bard theory states that emotions root in the hypothalamus. The feedback between the hypothalamus, muscle and organs mirrors the Chinese view of emotions as concurrent movement of Qi on both physical and mental level.

To strengthen the connection between emotions and physical symptoms, the James-Lange theory maintains that emotions are actually the result of physiological functions such as muscular tension, increased heart beat, dry mouth, etc, rather than the cause. This brings out the comparable idea found in Chinese Medicine that psychic changes happen simultaneously with the physical changes. Another similarity between the James-Lang theory and Chinese Medicine is the connection of emotions to the heart and blood vessels. In addition, one of the Chinese Medicine patterns commonly found in mental emotional problems is Heart-Blood Deficiency, a description of the pattern being found in Lange’s view of sorrow.

The power of the Chinese characters is underlined in the image which describes the “excitation” created by emotions: it contains the radical “water” as a comparison of the force of the waves with the powerful effects emotions evoke. Solomon agrees on the common view that emotions perturb Reason, they enchain and enslave us. However, he goes as far as to say that emotions are the life force and drive of the soul. More importantly, emotions represent the Self, not Reason. As Nietzsche emphasized: “Passions (emotions) have more reason than Reason.” Solomon also states that wisdom is not opposite to passion, which is a common view of the Chinese philosophers.

Damasio separates feelings from emotions, saying the feelings are more inward and unconscious, which is similar to Corporeal Soul, while emotions more outward and could represent the Mind and Ethereal Soul in Chinese Medicine.

Freud’s classification of the psyche in ego, super-ego, and id could mirror the souls in the Chinese perspective with the id as the Corporeal Soul on the physical level and Ethereal on the psychic level. In addition, his view on death points out other similarities with the Corporeal Soul centripetal movement before death.


The Influence of Confucianism and Daoism in Chinese Medicine

It is vital to make a clear-cut distinction between the meaning of spirit, mind, and psyche from the Chinese Medicine perspective before exploring the world of Confucianism and Daoism philosophies.

In his book “The Psyche of Chinese Medicine”, Giovanni Maciocia gives very clear and concise definitions of these terms. Spirit is referred to as all 5 Yin Organs’ spiritual aspects, that is the Mind (Shen) of the Heart, the Ethereal Soul (Hun) of the Liver, the Corporeal Soul (Po) of the Lungs, the Intellect (Yi) of the Spleen, and the Will-Power (Zhi) of the Kidney. Therefore, the Mind is the spiritual aspect of the Heart, while the soul is typically associated with the Corporeal Soul. Psyche is usually used as a synonym for spirit.

Yi Yang, a Daoist philosopher, promotes the idea of body and spirit being nothing but a different depth of aggregation of Qi. To illustrate this thought, another Daoist philosopher states that “a stone is a lump of Qi”. Furthermore, the Daoist Fan Chen says that body and spirit are “like the sharpness of the knife”, “there is no question of one knife’s sharpness surviving the destruction of its blade”.

The Confucian philosopher Zhang Zai writes that Qi is never created or destroyed, as it is part of a continuous transformation. He says: “When Qi consolidates itself it has shape and becomes visible to our eyes. When Qi does not consolidate itself it has no shape, it will not be visible to the eye. After its consolidation it manifests itself in the external world. When it dissolves, can one say that it becomes nothingness?”  Many of the principles of Chinese Medicine actually derive from Zhang’s thoughts.

Chinese Medicine is characterized by polarism rather than dualism. The major principles in the theory of Chinese Medicine, Yin and Yang, Hot and Cold, Deficiency and Excess, and Interior and Exterior are indeed opposites. However, they are opposites but manifestations of the same process. As mentioned earlier, nothing is lost, just transformed. One cannot exist without the other and it can only be defined in reference to its opposite. Interesting to note is that from the Confucian philosophy view, an individual cannot be defined by itself but rather as a part of its family and community.


The Confucian influence on Chinese Medicine is probably more significant than that of Daoism. The integration of physical and emotional levels is at the core of this philosophy. Chinese Medicine does not view the soul as something that “animates” the body but rather the same thing at different degrees of concentration. The body and the spirit are different manifestations of Qi, the body being more condensed while the spirit more rarified. This highlights a fundamental quality of Chinese Medicine – the unity of body and spirit, which is of major clinical importance.

Examples of diseases successfully treated with Chinese Medicine therapies such as Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine are depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders (manic-depression), night terrors, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


References and Sources:

Maciocia, G. (2009). The Psyche in Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone: New York.

Read more articles by Dr Damiana at


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